Lots of ink has been spilled outlining the increasingly dire condition of the Republican Party. Levels of public affiliation with the party have set new record lows over the past couple of years in a predictable response to the party’s growing extremism. However, much of the commentary about this situation has overlooked a critical factor.
While Republican affiliation is setting new lows, Democratic affiliation, while still much higher than the Republicans, is beginning to approach their own historic lows. Neither of our major political parties are generally trusted or respected. Democrats are gaining ground politically, but only as a default.
This has not always been the case. The Democratic Party was able to generate a wave of optimistic enthusiasm from the late fifties until about 1968. Republicans enjoyed tremendous respect from the late seventies until the train wreck of the second Bush Administration. In our time, Democrats are steadily gaining momentum almost everywhere outside the Deep South and the sparsely populated regions of the Mountain West, but this political shift is very different from similar epochal shifts in the past.
Growing Democratic power is not coming from a more popular governing agenda, a vision for the future that sparks enthusiasm, or even a set of charismatic leadership figures. The only force driving the Democratic Party’s expansion is growing hatred of the GOP.
Failure to appreciate this dynamic is the story of the Obama years for both Democrats and Republicans. Emerging from the unprecedented catastrophe of the Bush Era, Americans gave a pair of massive electoral victories to the Democrats in ’06 and ’08 out of pure, desperate exhaustion. If the Democrats had recognized the meaning of those victories, people today might be sizing Obama up for a new spot on Mount Rushmore.
Instead, Democrats interpreted the results to mean that Americans loved them and supported their outdated plan to extend 20th Century hyper-bureaucratic government into our time. With a nation reeling from a long series of bleeding disasters, they diverted all of the energy the country had given them into fulfilling Ted Kennedy’s dream of national health care.
They failed to do this. They then re-packaged their failure to deliver national health care as some awkward form of success, and lost big in 2010.
When the Republicans swept into office in 2010 turned out to be batshit crazy, the electorate recoiled again in 2012. Now we’re all stuck. Government has effectively closed down. Any public function that cannot be carried out by the executive branch or the courts is indefinitely deferred.
On the one side we have a Democratic Party which is moderately reasonable, but trapped in the past and incapable of forming a governing vision that can address the needs of a Post-Cold War world. On the other side we have a Republican Party gripped by a terrifying paranoia that threatens to ruin the country and the planet.
Put Democrats in power and they’ll assume we like their ridiculous ideas and work hard to implement them against our actual wishes. They’ll cost us money for projects we don’t want or need while creating headaches that have to be dealt with in the future.
Put Republicans in power and they’ll obey the voices in their heads. The party is more or less controlled by the kind of idiots who would threaten to bring the global political and financial order to its knees in order to solve problems that only exist in their delusions.
American voters are trapped between crazy and inept. Almost every election is a cost-benefit analysis between the marginal cost of putting a Democrat in office and the terror of unleashing a Republican lunatic. Increasingly we are voting for the relative safety of Democratic ineptitude and Democrats are misinterpreting it as love.
Opportunity hides in this grim scenario for an organization with the insight and dexterity to exploit it. The country is aching for an Eisenhower; dull, relentlessly competent leadership. America does not need an Apollo Project. We need to fix our highways, update our tax structure, and tame our fiscal mess. We’ve had three charismatic young Presidents in a row and they have all sucked.
The party or leader who can offer us eight years of bare, gray competence and uneventful leadership may win lasting admiration. Recognizing that neither party is poised to inspire us, or being asked to inspire us, might lead to a major political victory for whoever is ready to seize it.